The NFL’s Image Problem


The last few months must have been especially difficult for the NFL’s new commissioner, Roger Goodell.  The league has found itself in a tough position – dealing more with controversy and off-field problems than dealing with the game.

Imagine taking over as the CEO of a major corporation and being faced on day one with something as big as the Michael Vick story.  That’s hardly how you want to begin your new tenure.

Goodell had to be wishing for the start of the season just so the games being played on the field could take some of the attention away from the saga being played out everyday in front of hundreds of cameras and reporters.  That could at least help make the public forget about the imagaes of Michael Vick strolling into and out of a court room.

Not so fast.

Week one of the season gave birth to Spygate when Jets coach Eric Mangini accused Bill Belichick, the previously assumed genius head coach of the New England Patriots, of video taping his team’s defensive signals.

Then all hell broke loose.

It’s issues like these that Goodell has been dealing with since day one of his tenure as commissioner.  And, from the beginning, he has played the role of disciplinarian handing out fines and punishments to all who would dare to run afoul of the law or the league’s rule book.

Professional sports has far too long carried the stigma that the athletes involved are thugs and that they received special treatment from their leagues and from the law.  The beginning for the new head of the most popular sport could either help to disspell that notion or reinforce it.

So, how has the new boss done?  Not so good.

Last year, when all of professional sports were standing on the precipice, the public had to be questioning the character of the players and even the validity of the sports they were watching.

The year 2007 may always be remembered as the year of the scandal.  The NHL was attempting to recover from a lockout and MLB was trying to deal with drug-enhanced performance.  Yet things reached a new low in the NBA.

In July of last year, NBA referree Tim Donaghy was accused by the FBI of betting on NBA games.  That included games he worked.  In those games, when the home team was favored by 0-4.5 points, they had a record of 5-12 against the spread according to  Further, home underdogs were 1-7 when the spread was 5-9.5 points.

These were tough times for professional sports considering that the Michael Vick story was running on another channel along with all the other pro sports scandals.  But Mark Cuban, the vocal and often criticized owner of the Dallas Mavericks, wrote his feelings on the situation in his blog.

“As bad as the allegations facing the NBA today are, it’s also an opportunity to face every allegation that has ever been directed towards the NBA and its officials and preempt them from ever occurring in the future.”

“The NBA took a hit today. Behind that hit is a catalyst and opportunity for significant change that could make the NBA stronger than it ever has been. I have complete confidence that David Stern and [NBA Deputy Commissioner/COO] Adam Silver will do just that and the NBA and our officiating will be all the stronger for it.”

What Cuban wrote makes perfect sense.  All of pro sports are facing some tough times and even tougher scandals.  But handling these situations head on and correcting them promptly can not only prevent a recurrence but can also send a signal to the public that this kind of behavior, whether from players, referees or anyone else will simply not be tolerated.

But that’s not always how it’s handled.  And in the case of Roger Goodell and the NFL, prompt action hasn’t always corrected the problem nor has it publically signaled an absolute end to these issues.

Goodell became Commissioner about a year after the Jamal Lewis story.  Lewis had been convicted of playing a role in a drug deal.  But because of his status as a football player, his 4-month sentence had been delayed until after the football season was over.  He served his time and rejoined his team in training camp.

Goodell had the opportunity to clean up all of this behavior.  Let’s look at Goodell’s track record:

Michael Vick was placed on indefinite suspension by the league in August of last year due to his involvement in dog fighting and gambling

Pacman Jones was barred from the Titans’ training facility and eventually suspended for a year due to his involvement in a Las Vegas strip club shooting incident

Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots forfeited a first-round draft pick and were fined a combined $750,000 for video taping opponents’ signals

The San Francisco 49ers had their fifth-round pick in this year’s draft taken away and were also forced to swap third-round picks with the Bears for tampering with Lance Briggs

On the surface, these punishments appear to be rather harsh.  The Patriots and 49ers both lost draft picks while the Patriots and Belichick gave up a large amount of cash for violations of the sport’s rule book.  Meanwhile, Jones and Vick were suspended from the NFL.

The problem here is that serious violations should not only be punished but the violations should not be allowed to ever occur again.

I doubt seriously that the Patriots or the 49ers will be breaking the rules set forth in the NFL’s rule book again anytime soon.  Not only did they give up draft picks and money but the one thing that NFL teams value the most – their public image – has been tarnished enough.

It’s the problems off the field that the NFL hasn’t eliminated that tarnishes the game.

Jamal Lewis was allowed to not only serve his jail time when it was convenient for him but was also allowed to come back to the game.  He never missed a single down of football for committing a felony.

Michael Vick’s crime has still yet to lead to being barred outright from the NFL.  His suspension is indefinite but what happens when he’s out of prison and applies for reinstatement?

And, finally, Pacman Jones, who has a lengthy criminal record will likely be reinstated prior to training camp.  The league will almost assuredly allow the trade between the Titans and the Cowboys and Jones will be back on the field this September in a new NFL city.

What Roger Goodell fails to recognize is that allowing felons and those with long histories of living on the wrong side of the law to ever come back to the game is a mistake!  When the game welcomes back a player with that kind of background, it certainly doesn’t send a message of wholesome, family entertainment.  Instead, it tells us all that as long as the league thinks you can help them make a dollar, you’re okay – felon or not.

If Roger Goodell wants to clean up the sport he now heads up he should try some tough love.  How about expelling those who are convicted of felonies?  Stop with suspensions of any and all lengths.  Throw them out of the game and never allow them to come back.

Allowing Pacman to come back at all is a slap in the face to every law abiding citizen in the country.  We could certainly never do that.  Our employers would never suspend us for a year and allow us to return a year later because they felt like we had learned our lesson.  But it’s apparent that the NFL doesn’t see it that way.

And in Michael Vick’s case, you just have this feeling that after his prison term is up that he will be welcomed back into the NFL fold…just like Jamal Lewis and Pacman Jones.

The public doesn’t see a bunch of fine upstanding people when they look at professional sports.  Sure, most of the players are good people.  But allowing the small minority of those players who can’t stay out of trouble to remain stains the game for everyone.

Roger, stop worrying yourself over the look of the game.  Trying to pretty it up by forcing players to cut their hair so viewers can easily see the names on the backs of the players’ jerseys is the equivalent to putting perfume on a filthy pig.

The name on the back of the jersey means little to us if the player in the jersey has a rap sheet a mile long.

Besides, if you are truly interested in making the sport pretty and all gussied up then start with those involved in it.  Deal with them.  And by weeding out those who give the sport the reputation that it’s played by thugs will make the game far prettier and nice to watch than a hair cut.

All of professional sports faces some tough times.  Maybe all pro sports leagues should take Mark Cuban’s advice and turn all of this into something positive.  Face the problems head on.  Deal with those who break the rules.  And stop being apologetic to anyone who can’t remain on the right side of the law.

Find a problem.  Throw it out.  Stop suspending the problem and eliminate it.  Then Cuban’s words will be true.  This can be an opportunity to face every allegation that has ever been directed towards professional sports and its players.  Then and only then can it be preempted from ever occurring in the future.